Saturday, August 18, 2018

I, Michelangelo Buonarroti, the Florentine, and my Florence.


As all biographies, at first I will mention the village of Caprese, 100km east of my city Florence where I was born on a March day in 1475 according to the calendar you are more used to in your time. My originality is renowned across squares and galleries of your majestic cities, in your citadels of belief and your culture to which you inadvertently cling, so I will also start this narration with this original thought where I call a place other than my birthplace my city, my love. 


This is where I rediscovered myself, and where art rediscovered itself a century before I came to call it my home. It was here that I was sent as a young boy to study grammar. But I was raised by a nanny and her husband, a stonecutter so “along with the milk of my nurse I received the knack of handling chisel and hammer” and school and formal training could never have grown an interest in me. Such was the magic of Florence in late 15th century, in its glory during the High renaissance as you call my days today.

The city dances, lives, drinks and creates as a living gallery flanked on two sides for the vibrant Arno. The old bridge called by our Italian name for the same, “Ponte Vecchio” spans over the river and it is the only bridge in Florence that you can see still standing as I did in my days. The others were destroyed sadly by the fanaticism of your World Wars. But do not get me wrong, such fanaticism was also know in my times, even in Florence during its golden period which chased me briefly from my beloved city.
The Arno river and the Ponte Vecchio 

On this bridge Giorgio Vasari had built a raised corridor, one year after my death in 1565, to let our patrons, the Medicis reach their palace, Palazzo Pitti from our town hall Palazzo della Signoria without stepping in among the plebeians. Such was the vanity of our rulers, the Medici family but it was also them who commissioned us artists to reach our divinity during that inebriated glorious Quattrocento (15th century), so I cannot really complain.
The raised platform on the Ponte Vecchio
The oldest bridge on the Arno was built at this very spot by the Romans and now shops mainly selling jewelry can be found on the bridge Ponte Vecchio 

Remember my friend Vasari, who apart from the platform, also marveled in the design of the gallery of Uffizi which housed our magistrate offices and which now holds the largest collection of Italian Renaissance art and you can admire them including some of my own in this museum. Vasari was a true friend and he outlived me in our mortal lives, and thus got the opportunity to design my tomb. I will however come back to this later.

The facade of the Uffizi Museum designed by Giorgio Vasari
Bacchus by Michelangelo Merisi Caravaggio, exhibited in the Uffizi Museum
Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli, exhibited in the Uffizi Museum

Now let us visit my workshop which you call the Museum of the Opera of the Duomo and I will show you the 5m tall piece of marble that has been lying around for 40 years then. Only I can carve out a hero from it, which will be worthy of this magnificent city. Yes, I, Michelangelo Buonarroti, the Florentine, as it reads on the band of the virgin placed in the Vatican. Ok! Let me speak a little of that master-piece, though it does not adorn my city.
A workshop of sculptors in the Gallerie dell'Accademia where Michelangelo's David is exhibited. 

You see, a few years after I started to carve out my originality on marble, a young incompetent Piero the Unfortunate inherited the leadership of Florence. Apart from his commissioning me to build a snow statue, that endured the Florentine heat for two days, his failure to handle the situation that arose from the siege of King Charles VIII of France, caused the Medici family to flee Florence and the city came under the influence of fanatical Dominican priest Girolamo Savonarola in 1494. Savonarola wanted to make Florence great (sounds familiar even in your times?) and was keen to build Florence on morality and Christian purity and thus had obvious apathy towards art and artists. Thus I left briefly my home and arrived in Rome after brief sojourns in Venice and Bologna in 1496. It was here in 1497 that the French ambassador to the Holy See, Cardinal Jean de Bilhères-Lagraulas commissioned the Pieta which came to life through the virgin, forever pure and young and still remains as one of my most renowned master pieces. But the theme of the pieta was so close to me as it deals with mortality that this will in no way be my last on that subject.
The Vatican Pieta, one of the three statues made by Michelangelo on this theme. 

Now let us go back to my workshop in Florence, to which I could again return in 1499 after the execution of the fanatic Savonarola, and the re-establishment of the Florentine Republic under Piero Soderini. There lied that 5m tall Carrara marble on which work had been held for 40 years. Now I Michelangelo Buonarroti, the Florentine, the creator of the Pieta of Vatican (on which I signed my name just in case someone steals my glory) will liberate the hero trapped in that marble block to adorn the grand Filippo Brunelleschi’s dome of our cathedral.
The dome of the Florence Cathedral, an architectural wonder.

The cathedral is a pride of Florence, as I had known it all my life and as you may admire it in your time. The complex with every aspect of it inspired me to chisel on marble from the very early days of my life.

For example, the lavish bronze gate of the Baptistery, the Gates of Paradise, on which the master Lorenzo Ghiberti spend 50 years of his life to realize and which you can see today in the museum of the cathedral housed in the very building where I had my workshop. 
The bronze door of the Baptistery designed by Lorenzo Ghiberti which Michelangelo called the Gates of Paradise.  

Then there are the marble facades of the cathedral and the baptistery, decorated with sculptures by Nanni di Banco, Donatello, and Jacopo della Quercia and the sublime bell tower designed by one of my heroes, Giotto di Bondone. 

The facade of the Florence Cathedral

Everything was perfect with this complex even 100 years before my existence, at the beginning of the 15th century, everything, but it missed only a very important detail, its huge dome. No one had any idea how to build a free standing dome which would be the world’s largest and will hold that distinction for centuries to come.

Then came along a goldsmith, with no real experience in architecture who took up the task of building the impossible dome armed with years of studying the ancient Roman domes, mainly the Pantheon and architectures. This is the very same goldsmith who lost the competition to Ghiberti for the commission of the Baptistery gate I mentioned above which I named the Gates of Paradise. But this goldsmith was a genius, and I admire him for it all my life. 
Filippo Brunelleschi looking up towards his dome.

He devised an innovative technique, which you call now the Herring bone brick design, which you can see even in your time if you are brave enough to climb 463 steps up to the top of the dome, making your way between the two walls of this unique dome.

The Herring bone pattern of the bricks as seen in the inner walls of the dome.
From the top of the dome of the Florence Cathedral.

After having convinced his workers of his design using a real model which can be seen today in the same cathedral museum I mentioned above, Brunelleschi went ahead with the realization of the dome which stands out against the Florentine sky. 
A small hemispherical dome dating back to Brunelleschi's time with the Herring bone pattern, discovered in 2012 while enlargement of the Duomo Museum and is believed to be the model Brunelleschi used to convince the workers of his technique. 

Because the dome was possible, so was possible much later to paint the grand fresco in the interior of the dome by my friend whom I mentioned before, Vasari. It was however completed after his lifetime by Federico Zuccari and both of them were inspired by, yes you guessed it, by me, Michelangelo Buonarroti, the Florentine. I am unique when it comes to frescos, and you all know my famous fresco in the Vatican. I will come to that later.


The fresco under the dome of the Florence Cathedral with the Last Judgement by Vasari.

Now why else is Brunelleschi’s dome important? It’s also because a young apprentice was so thrilled by his unique machines that he used to lift all that mass up to that height that he made a lot of sketches and passed them later, or rather you know them later as his own inventions. This young apprentice was named Leonardo da Vinci and leaking out this trivia should in no means be interpreted as a result of my rivalry and contempt for him. In fact I liked him too, even when he vehemently opposed the idea of placing that 5m marble statue that I created on that grand Brunelleschi’s dome.
Annunciation painted by young Leonardo Da Vinci when he was an apprentice with the master Verrocchio in Florence in the 1470s. This is exhibited in the Uffizi Museum
The tools developed and used by Brunnelleschi for the construction of the Dome that can be seen in the Doumo Museum in Florence. 

So what is this statue I am talking about? It is, as you call it even 500 years after it was carved as the most famous marble statue of the world. They asked me to build a gigantic biblical hero which would be one of the many to adorn the roof of the cathedral. And that is where my originality comes into play. A statue of David, unlike the statues known to the world at that time, unique, different from those by other masters like Donatello and Verrocchio who represented David after he had defeated the giant Goliath. My statue shows the young, confident, determined David just before he uses his slingshot to slay the giant. 
The original David by Michelangelo now can be seen in the  Gallerie dell'Accademia of Florence.

You can see his very eyes, peering towards his adversary, and you can realize that David, at that very moment is confident of the superiority of his intellect against the brute force of his enemy. 


Should I even mention his perfect body, the muscles and the veins and how I spent hours dissecting dead bodies to study such intricate human anatomy?  


Thus was conceived the master piece, David on 25th January, 1504 but then a new struggle issued, that of lifting a six ton marble statue to the roof of the cathedral. In fact it was so perfect, no one dared to risk damaging it and thus a committee including Botticelli and also my love and hate relation Da Vinci decided to place it at the gate of Palazzo della Signoria, the city's town hall which you know as Palazzo Vecchio. 
Palazzo della Signoria, the town hall of Florence, now called the Palazzo Vecchio
Piazza della Signoria in front of the town hall where David was originally placed. 

And the location was no less grand than the rooftop of the Cathedral as it replaced the master Donatello's bronze sculpture of Judith and Holofernes and it would have been today among some of the other master-pieces of the Piazza della Signoria which came there later but are no less grand and exquisite.
The replica of David placed at its original location in the Piazza della Signoria. 
The Rape of the Sabine Women (1582) by Giambologna in the Piazza della Signoria.

Perseus with the Head of Medusa by Benvenuto Cellini (1554) in the same square.
And how can I forget Bandinelli who once destroyed my work out of envy but whose Hercules stood by my David as brothers guarding the republic of Florence.
Hercules and Cacus by Bartolommeo Bandinelli (1534) which stands just beside the replica of David, where the original David had been in Michelangelo's time.

Soon my David also became a political statement as a symbol of the little Republic of Florence which can look right into the face of stronger gigantic neighbors, including Rome towards which my David looks. And it became so unique that even people of the 1870s just like those in my time started to worry about its conservation. Thus it was removed from the public plaza and placed in the security of Accademia Gallery to which people queue even in your day to glance at the most illustrious sculpture of the world. But they built a replica, probably the best among the many real-size replicas of my statue and placed it in its original location in 1873. 
The original David in the Gallerie dell'Accademia 

There is also a bronze replica which overlooks my city from the Piazzale Michelangelo.
The bronze replica of the David in Piazzale Michelangelo

David had given me the fame I craved for and this fame now brought unforeseen opportunities as well as unexpected challenges. First I was called back to Rome by Pope Julius II who would remain by favorite critic and admirer. While he commissioned me to design his tomb, an envious Donato Bramante had other plans for me. Michelangelo, the sculptor had already proved his ability, so Bramante having lost the commission of the Pope’s tomb, forced him to demand from me something I was not used to, to paint a fresco. Yes I had little experience in painting, and a few like Doni Tondo which you have exhibited in your Uffizi Gallery of Florence are the few, I had realized before.
Doni Tondo of Michelangelo exhibited in the Uffizi Museum. 

But little did he know that I, the Florentine Michelangelo Buonarroti would soon convert this challenge in one of the greatest paintings ever realized by man. And thus, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, in the very heart of the Vatican, itself, like my creation depicted the divine touch of God onto the mortal man. 
The fresco of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (from Wikipedia as photography is prohibited in the Sistine Chapel)

But why I am mentioning this when I am speaking about my city Florence? Because a few months after the ceiling of the Sistine chapel was completed, Pope Julius II died in 1513 and I was to complete the tomb that he dearly wanted in his lifetime. But his successors were not so inclined in paying for that tomb and so the series of sculptures which I created, some finished and others unfinished had to remain so till this day. You can see some of those magnificent prisoners which still remain trapped in their marble cages, in the same room of the Accademia Gallery of my city where my David stands high.
Three of the four prisoners by Michelangelo exhibited in the Academia of Florence. 

This was not the only tomb I was commissioned for as back home, the Medicis also wanted me to design their family funerary chapel in the Basilica of San Lorenzo along with its library and also its façade. Here in this chapel I left a touch my originality in the allegorical figures representing Night and Day, and Dusk and Dawn.
Basilica of San Lorenzo in the left top corner. Photo taken from the roof of the Florence cathedral. You can see the unfinished facade of the basilica.

Affluence was never my problem and I can safely say I was what you call today the multi-billionaires. No wonder all this wealth came to me from the city whose benches in our market place, the Loggia del Mercato Nuovo, gave you the word “bank” and when those benches when ‘ruptured’ it gave you the word bankruptcy. And this later seems to have hit the patrons of the city, the Medicis in the late 1520s.
Il Porcellino, the bronze boar in Mercato Nuovo of Florence. This is a replica of the original boar of Pietro Tacca which was originally in this spot.

Loggia del Mercato Nuovo of Florence.

The Medicis may have just dreamt bigger than even they can afford. The façade of Basilica of San Lorenzo was never finished, and no one else till your day could ever finish that which may have been my greatest work ever. 
The unfinished facade of the Basilica of San Lorenzo

This was followed by political turmoil and I hardly realized when the Medicis fell, thrown out, fought back, reconquered Florence and started hating me and plotting my assassination. But in all, it was the time to flee my beloved city again and in 1534 I found refuge again in the chapel (though under a Medici Pope) where I had brought the ceiling to life, the Sistine chapel, this time around to paint the final apocalypse of man, the Last Judgement.
Michelangelo's Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel, Vatican (photo from Wikipedia as photography is prohibited in the Sistine Chapel.) 

And work never stopped to pour upon me, now in my seventies and desperate to return to my beloved Florence. But in Rome there was work to be done, for starters to redesign the seat of mortal power, the Capitoline Hill and its Piazza del Campidoglio and then for the most remarkable architectural project anyone could be asked to design in my days, the very crown of divinity, the dome of St. Peter's Basilica of Rome.
Piazza del Campidoglio, on top of the Capitoline Hill in Rome, Italy designed by Michelangelo. 

The Saint Peter's Basilica and the Vatican as seen across the Tiber River in Rome. The dome was designed by Michelangelo but finished after his death.

All this kept me away, during the dusk of mortal life from my beloved city which I would never see again till my last breathe on 18 February, 1564. And it would never have been possible, unless my heir, my nephew smuggled my body from Rome and lay me to rest in the Basilica of Santa Croce of Florence. It is here where my friend Vasari designed a fitting tomb for me and it is here where I rest with other Florentine greats like Galileo Galilei and tombstones of Machiavelli and Dante.

The tomb of Michelangelo in the  Basilica of Santa Croce of Florence. The tomb is designed by Vasari.

The tombstones of Dante and Galileo Galilei in the Basilica of Santa Croce of Florence 
Never in my youth did I ponder on the basic fact of human life, death itself, however I could not shy away from the inevitable during my later years when I searched for immortality through my extensive works. Immortality, is it through my heir, or through the only love of my life, the young nobleman Tommaso dei Cavalieri who stands and weeps in my funeral, or is it through the dome of God himself at the Vatican which is still being built as I lay in my coffin, or through the immaculate body of David or through those mountains of white marble of Carrara or my little workshop behind the Cathedral of my beloved Florence? May be not, but just as the ever youthful virgin whom I carved in my youth, I did another attempt to divine permanence through another pieta, this time putting myself as Nicodemus holding on to the body of Jesus, holding on to the only permanence, to death itself. And thus you mortals like me, you rightfully placed that final work, that Florentine Pietà, with me, Michelangelo Buonarroti, the Florentine in the Museum of the Opera of the Duomo as you call it today, in the very place where I spend the prime of my life creating immortality, my workshop of Florence.
The Florentine Pieta, one of Michelangelo's very last works which he finished when in his 80s. However unhappy with the outcome, in an attempt to destroy it, he permanently damaged the left arm and leg of the Jesus in the statue. The statue is now exhibited in the Museum of the Opera of the Duomo, in the very room which was the workshop of the cathedral and where Michelangelo carved out his David. 


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